Why do random strangers stop parents at the supermarket, or on the street, to offer their unsolicited advice? Some experts think the advice-givers want to connect over the shared human experience of raising children. Others think that as a decent and moral society we are driven to protect these tiny humans, so we offer what we have: our advice. But not everyone thinks the advice-giving comes from a good place. There are those who chalk the unasked for counsel up to ego and the need for the stranger to see himself someone in control.
Whatever the reason for the unsolicited advice, parents tend to find such advice unwanted, intrusive, and irritating, even when well meant. In spite of this, most of us have been experienced the dread approach of random strangers telling us how to care for our children. “Your baby is dressed too warm,” the stranger might say, or “That baby carrier is bad for Baby’s posture!” even though we’ve never met this person in our entire lives.
Which is part of what is so irritating. Why would we, as parents, take the advice of a random stranger, over our own instincts? Why, in fact, would we take the counsel of this unknown person over that of a parent, cousin, sibling, grandparent, friend, or pediatrician?
Forced to Acknowledge Unsolicited Advice
The fact is we wouldn’t. We would not take their advice. At best, we strain to find a polite answer (and a hasty exit). And yet it just keeps on happening. “People love to give unsolicited advice. That’s a fact,” says clinical therapist Joseph Tropper. “And as a parent with kids, you’re forced to acknowledge their unwanted suggestions to prevent offending them.”
Tropper believes the phenomenon springs from ego and the way the advice-giver wants to be seen: as someone who is always in control. “Random advice-givers need to gratify their ego by offering insights that make them more powerful, competent, and knowledgeable.”
Does the advice-giving never come from a good place? Is it never altruistic to offer advice on the fly to parents you’ve never met? Of course not. Not even Tropper believes that. “Not all pieces of advice are meant to bloat one’s ego. There are those who offer their insights as a form of support,” says Tropper. “Most of them, however, have a tendency to express their self-perception of being always in control by telling parents how to take care of their children without even knowing them in the first place [emphasis added].”
The funny thing is that strangers offering unsolicited advice probably also took umbrage, once upon a time, when they too were new parents receiving unsolicited advice from yes, random strangers. “I often hear from parents that raising a child has opened them to a level of scrutiny from random strangers that they hadn’t anticipated. It can be really difficult to feel like every choice you make will be judged by people you don’t even know–it can leave parents feeling like they’re destined to be criticized, no matter what they do,” says children’s therapist Katie Lear.
A Random Stranger’s Parenting Memories, Triggered
“Parenting is an emotionally loaded experience, and I think it is easy for other people to project their own experiences as a parent onto another person’s child. This may be why so many people feel the need to voice their advice or critique of someone else’s parenting in a public space: it has triggered their own memories of parenting,” says Lear. “They may be responding more to their own parenting experience than they are to the child in front of them.”
It Takes a Village
When a stranger offers unsolicited advice, sometimes it’s about the simple human desire to connect with others: to be a part of something, to belong. “We are a social species always seeking connection. Strangers who stop parents to offer advice may be seeking to connect with parents with whom they feel they have a shared experience,” says Leigh Ellen Magness, a child and adolescent therapist.
But nostalgia is also a prime motivator, as is the desire to help. “I find most of the people who I’ve witnessed giving unsolicited parenting advice have been parents who have been through the journey recently or historically and who are nostalgic about their experience. They may be remembering what it was like to have a child the same age as the baby or the parent. They’re wanting to provide support to both,” says Magness. “People may ultimately feel driven to contribute to the greater good of the community by acting as the proverbial village.”
Let’s not, by the way, forget the fact that babies are cute and adorable. Babies act like magnets, drawing attention, whether their parents like it or not. “One generous interpretation for this behavior is that we are all biologically hardwired to feel protective of babies, whether they’re related to us or not. A baby’s big, wide-set eyes, large head-to-body ratio, and chubby cheeks have a ‘cuteness factor’ that instinctively makes us want to care for them,” says Katie Lear. “It’s the same reason so many people had such a strong emotional response to Baby Yoda. Perhaps reminding yourself that others are moved by your baby’s overwhelming cuteness can help take the edge off all the unsolicited comments.”
There’s no doubt that we find it disturbing to be approached by random strangers, telling us how to parent our children. But it won’t do you, your baby, or even the random stranger any good for you to lose your cool. That’s why it’s good to be prepared with a plan of action the next time someone you don’t know from Adam approaches you with unwanted advice. Pretty much, that plan of action comes down to listening first, after which you can either politely disregard the advice, or agree the advice is sound.
Responding to Unsolicited Advice:
- Listen: It’s normal for you to feel defensive when a random stranger offers you unwanted advice on how to care for your baby. But take a deep breath and step outside the situation for a minute. The stranger isn’t criticizing you, but sharing an insight they feel is important. The insight may not be new to you, and you may not even agree with is said, but the stranger is trying to help, and it is polite to hear them out.
- Agree: Even if you don’t agree with everything the random stranger suggests, if you can find something in there to agree with, say so. It will light up their entire day.
- Disregard Politely: Let’s say you’ve heard out the random stranger and their unsolicited advice goes against not only medical science but common sense. At the same time, it’s clear they will never listen to what you have to say and you won’t change their mind. The best thing to do at this point is to validate their effort to enlighten you. You do this by tossing off a polite but short non-committal response, for instance, “That’s interesting. Thank you!” Then you smile and move along and everyone’s happy.
Unsolicited Advice: Keep Your Cool
It’s hard to keep your cool when that random stranger spouts off, telling you what to do. That’s why it helps to remember that it’s not a judgment or criticism of your parenting abilities. More likely, seeing you with your baby triggered fond memories, protective instincts, or the desire to once more be the person who matters most in someone’s world, just as you matter most in the world to your own baby, and your baby matters most to you.
In the end, those random strangers with their unsolicited advice? All they really want is validation.
Something you can give them at very little cost.
Which is why the next time it happens, you don’t have to either take that advice or get upset. Instead you can take a deep breath, and remember that this is one human being reaching out to another: reaching out for a human response. You need not do more than listen, nod, and move along.
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